Discerning God’s Will Together, which Danny Morris and I co-authored, was jointly published by Alban and Upper Room books in 1997. I had incorporated prayerful spiritual discernment as one of the four practices in the Worshipful-Work model, which was presented in Transforming Church Boards Into Communities of Spiritual Leaders (Alban, 1995), drawing on Roman Catholic Ignation and Benedictine discernment insights. Danny, a staff member at Upper Room, had published Yearning to Know God’s Will (Zondervan, 1991), which drew insights from Quaker tradition and practice. In a phone call Danny said, “I have read your book and we need to get our minds and hearts together on this subject.” So we wrote the book together, rooting it in scripture, the wisdom of the church fathers and mothers, and practices of many discernment communities—all the while running it through the filters of our own Presbyterian and Methodist experience and yearning.
A spiritual director/trainer in Tucson recently said, “Oh, you and Danny are the ones who introduced communal spiritual discernment to the mainline Protestant denominations!” That is undoubtedly an overstatement, but a survey of publications on discernment in the fifteen years since our publication reveals that 28 books have been published, twenty one of them with the word “discernment” in the title or subtitle. A good number have quoted or cited our work.
Now Alban is reissuing this book with a new introduction and updating of the text. The cover is changed from a mosaic of three attentive sheep in the presence of the shepherd to three loping gazelles, indicating community and graceful, forward motion. But why? What have we learned over the fifteen years of attempting to practice discernment in leadership circles of congregations and assemblies? And why now? What still needs to be engaged and instilled?
The fifteen-year publishing trail affirms the interest in and desire for a better way to make decisions and do church business. It has been welcomed and folks have had a desire to know how better to facilitate it—also testified by the wide ecumenical attendance at “Schools for Discernmentarians” that Worshipful-Work and Upper Room co-sponsored during and following the publication of the book. Folks appropriated a new vocabulary with which to reflect on their process of discernment—words like indifference, self-death, listening hearts, exploring, improving, weighing, resting, consolation, desolation. When we presented the four practices of Worshipful-Work to judicatory and denominational entities, we were often invited back to elaborate on the work of communal spiritual discernment. One of our board members exclaimed, “We should change our name from Worshipful-Work to Discernment-Work, because that is where all of our energy is going!”
The initial welcome often resulted in delightful, significant stories of groups coming to one mind, perhaps even the “mind of Christ.” We also saw how the attempt to combine it within the culture of parliamentary procedure led to confusion and sometimes to disillusionment. We saw attempts being made, then groups reverting back into old patterns because the leadership did not know how to do—and was not comfortable with—a patient, prayerful process. We saw folks having some assurance that they had discerned God’s will, only to see failed results. “We were so sure that calling this person was of God, and things did not turn out right. We have been burned and are not sure we ever want to go down that path again.”
When we yearn for the path of discernment to be a smooth one, we are constantly faced with our need to be assured—with humility. We find so often that we are so attached to an outcome from personal preference or cultural conditioning that the prayer for indifference is hard. “Not my will but Thine be done,” is hard to utter. We want our decisions to be consistent with past ones and be logically correct.
Somehow God is not going to let us rest with the assurance that we have some kind of iron-clad formula for discerning decisions. That is not always the way the Spirit works. The mystery remains and infiltrates all of our best human efforts.
So with the reissue of this book, where are we now with discernment? A doctoral candidate working on the subject of the fifteen year experience with the ten spiritual discernment movements that we had presented in the book asked, “What advice do you have to offer?” I impulsively said, “Stay with it. It is worth the effort.”
The transformation in the way we meet and decide is a continuing one and not a short term fix. It may take decades and even centuries. Folks continue to apply the ten movements and find connections to their own traditions and life situations. Discernmentarians are finding ways to integrate them within the parliamentary culture we have inherited. Practicing discernment also opens our sight to the gifts that come from decision making practices of other cultures and religious traditions. In increasingly pluralistic cultures, Acts 15 continues to offer a way.
Stay with it in the midst of multiple cultures and world views.
The plural cultures and parties of Acts 15 continue to inform our process today, for our discernment operates in a wide range of world views and political agendas. We can learn from one another and other cultures. I recall Ken Bailey’s description of a presbytery meeting in Egypt. He said it would have driven a Westerner up the wall. They just sat around telling stories—no proposition to debate. After a while a recognized wisdom figure announced a conclusion. They entered it into the record and went home.
The World Council of Churches Central Committee several years ago faced a revolt and threat from Eastern Orthodox Churches to leave because they experienced the council as a Western organization with Western organizational patterns and decision making processes—largely linear and rational. When they named it, third world churches, women, and young people said the same thing. “This is not us!” In response, the Central Committee turned to two of its members—one from the Uniting Church in Australia, who had experience with consent process in its national meetings, and a young Quaker woman, Eden Grace, who wrote brilliantly about what it means to come to the “Mind of Christ” in communal decision-making. Their offerings on a patient, prayerful way were welcomed—but often resisted by the committee members who did not know another way.
Stay with it when personal preferences and personality styles operate together.
Benedictine Sister Mary Benet McKinney observes that parliamentary culture is biased—in favor of rational, linier thinkers and assertive verbal folks—and against folks who come to or express wisdom through hunch, intuition, silence, story, and the arts. She proposes that everybody has a piece of the wisdom. The trick is to find ways to get everyone’s wisdom on the table so that it can become shared wisdom.
Stay with it, even when the biblical and doctrinal sources seem to lead in divergent paths.
The late Michael Thawley, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, observed that many of their issues contained the same underlying and sometimes contradictory biblical underpinnings. He wondered, for instance, if or how the purity and justice streams of Scripture not only lived side by side but ever blessed one another. He wanted to ask Walter Bruggemann that question. Upon my return from New Zealand I had the opportunity to take in one of Walter’s seminars and asked his question. He replied, “They were both placed in the Canon, weren’t they?”
Engaging in the practice of patient, prayerful discernment may seem at times messy, sometimes contradictory, and often conflicting. We will experience both delight and the disillusion with it. The Spirit will often turn us on our heads. But the practice is worth it. Stay with it.
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Discerning God's Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church
by Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen
Bible study, research, and fieldwork merge in this book of practical principles for decision making by spiritual discernment. The step-by-step approach can be used to help any size group learn a new way to make decisions—a way that is interactive, spiritual, and rooted in faith practices and community. Small groups, committees, church boards, church leaders at all levels, and seminary professors will find this book valuable.
The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories
by Charles M. Olsen
The church year is often seen as a framework for church programs, but well-known Alban author Charles Olsen shows readers how it can be a prism through which congregations more deeply understand their own stories. By weaving together our narratives and those of Christian tradition, a congregation can clarify its identity, grow in wisdom, and discover a new vision for ministry.
Transforming Church Boards Into Communities of Spiritual Leaders
by Charles M. Olsen
Olsen presents a bold vision of leadership—one that offers church board work as an integral part of congregational leaders’ faith experience and development. Board or council members’ faith is engaged and informs the way they conduct the church’s business. Discover inspiring, practical ways your board can make its meetings become opportunities for deepening faith, developing leadership, and ultimately renewing your church..
A good strategic plan can be a great springboard for mission and ministry.
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Strategic Planning in Congregations
September 11-13, 2012, Holy Family Retreat Center
West Hartford, CT
Leader: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban senior consultant
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